The last time South Africans knowingly lived in fear of public bombings was more than 20 years ago.
From its launch in 1995 until its spine was broken around 2002, the Cape Town-based organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) used pipe and petrol bombs, in particular, to wage war against targets which expanded from gangsters and drug-dealers to include mosques, synagogues, police stations, shopping centres and restaurants.
The group’s bombing of the Planet Hollywood restaurant at the V&A Waterfront in 1998, leaving one person dead and 27 injured, drew international condemnation and led to the US State Department classifying Pagad as a terrorist group.
By the early years of the 2000s, Pagad was largely a spent force, with its leaders behind bars. But the effects linger: many Capetonians still recall the fear and uncertainty of the Pagad years, when a simple expedition to a shopping mall could feel like a high risk act.
Pagad was not the only threat to public safety during that period. As Raeesah Cachalia and Albertus Schoeman pointed out in a 2017 paper for the Institute for Security Studies, right-wing extremism was still a danger. In 2002, eight Boeremag bombs in Soweto destroyed railway lines and part of a mosque.
The global climate after 9/11 brought its own tensions, with state security claiming that suspects linked to al-Qaeda were deported days before South Africa’s 2004 general elections.
But for well over a decade, it has seemed that for all South Africa’s violent crime problems, acts of organised terror are not high up our list of collective fears.
While countries on the rest of the continent fell prey to heinous terrorist acts – like the 2013 al-Shabaab attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi which left 67 dead – South Africa’s most brutal episode over the same period was arguably the state-sponsored Marikana massacre.
There have, of course, been sporadic incidents and arrests on terrorism-related charges – but nothing like the scale seen elsewhere in Africa or the West.
This is why recent events in KwaZulu-Natal should give us significant pause for thought.
Experts have sensibly urged caution in jumping to conclusions of terrorism: which is generally defined as the use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, to achieve political aims or serve a particular ideological cause.
What is absent from the Durban scenario currently is firm evidence of political aims of ideological causes at play. But what is certainly present is the intimidation of civilians through the threat of violence.
Five explosive devices have been found in public areas in Durban within the space of the last week. A further bomb threat, at a Spar in Wenworth on 9 July, looks likely to have been the work of opportunists piggy-backing on the original incidents – as it was accompanied by an extortion threat.
On the basis of pictures taken by journalists, the devices seem to be relatively amateurish in design and construction, lacking the means to cause substantial damage.
But this is not necessarily cause for celebration; as a colleague with knowledge of this area suggested, it could be the work of “someone learning to do terrorism”. The obvious concern is that whatever is happening could escalate in scale and power, particularly if arrests remain elusive. There is also the risk of copycats becoming emboldened by the example.
From the perspective of a journalist who has been covering recent events, the most concerning aspect of the story so far is the undeniable fact that, as noted by Daily Maverick, at least one of the devices found in Durban in July 2018 looks extremely similar – if not identical – to the device uncovered at the Verulam mosque attack in May.
This is worrying because the Verulam attack did look likely to have a political or ideological dimension to it. After spending a few days in Verulam reporting for Daily Maverick in May, I was unconvinced by the theory that the mosque attack was motivated by a personal dispute or a business deal gone sour.
If that were the case, why would the attackers have sought out places in the mosque of religious significance to destroy, choosing to burn a library containing holy texts and a relic room? It also seemed significant that the mosque in question was Shia, coming against the backdrop of steadily escalating anti-Shia rhetoric within certain pockets of South Africa’s Muslim communities. This sectarian tension has been largely invisible to non-Muslims, but is no secret to Muslims.
Then came the Malmesbury mosque attack just over a month later. As in the Verulam attack, throats were slit – a form of violence hitherto relatively unfamiliar to South Africans – and again a mosque in a quiet rural area was targeted.
But the Malmesbury attacker was found to have been mentally ill, and the sense was that this fact effectively closed the case. That is despite the reality that there is no logical contradiction between extremism and mental illness – in fact, if anything, the opposite is true.
Of the three cases I’ve mentioned here – the recent Durban explosions; the Verulam mosque attack; and the Malmesbury mosque attack – in only one case has the puzzle as to the perpetrators’ identity been solved. That was the Malmesbury attack, and police were not required to track down the perpetrator, as he effectively stayed on the scene.
In that instance, police shot and killed the attacker before any potentially useful information could be extracted from him. It is the job of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to determine the circumstances around his death, but it is surely uncontroversial to say that it is unfortunate that he could not have been questioned.
Two months since Verulam – no arrests. No arrests either with regards to the Durban explosions.
While South Africans are accustomed to the wheels of police work and justice grinding slowly, in these cases there should be a heightened degree of urgency.
Terrorism is an extremely politically sensitive issue, and by raising the spectre of Islamic extremism in particular one runs the risk of fanning the flames of Islamophobia.
On the basis of my observations, however, nobody is more desperate for answers in these cases than Muslim leaders, who have repeatedly and publicly begged both the Hawks and Parliament for updates on the investigations.
In conversation with Muslim clerics and other authorities within the religion, it has become clear that there is a growing distrust that the Hawks are capable of investigating these matters with sufficient thoroughness and awareness of the wider context.
And indeed, there is some reason for scepticism. In the case of the British botanists kidnapped in KwaZulu-Natal in February 2018 by a couple allegedly linked to the Islamic State, the Hawks have stated in court papers that they were monitoring the pair for two years – and yet failed to prevent the botanists’ abduction and murder.
In the best case scenario, the Durban explosions will be found to be the work of inept vandals with relatively trivial axes to grind and no links to extremist groups. In that case, however, the Hawks will owe it to the public to give a satisfying explanation for why the devices used appeared so similar in design to that found at the Verulam mosque attack.
It is understandable why the Hawks and the government have been so withholding of information relating to the three cases – if issues of national security are at stake. But for the sake of public peace of mind, it is to be hoped that substantial breakthroughs will be announced very soon. Until we are given explicit information to the contrary, there is every reason to be concerned. DM